Age-related research highlighted during NIA director’s visit to USF
The director of the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute on Aging yesterday visited the USF Health Byrd Alzheimer’s Institute, the state’s only freestanding Alzheimer’s center offering clinical assessment, laboratory research, education and care under one roof.
NIA Director Richard Hodes, MD, introduced by U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor and Byrd Alzheimer’s Institute CEO David Morgan, PhD, spoke about the NIA’s initiatives to build momentum in the fight against Alzheimer’s disease. He also met with NIA-funded researchers from across USF and toured the Byrd Institute’s Center for Memory CARE.
The NIA supports biomedical, clinical, behavioral, and social research related to the aging process, healthy aging, and age-related diseases and disabilities. It is the primary federal agency funding and conducting Alzheimer’s disease research.
NIA-funded research at USF is approximately $3.5 million yearly, and 60 percent of the Byrd Alzheimer’s Institute funding is from NIA, Dr. Morgan said.
While working to understand the basic mechanisms of normal and abnormal aging, and to discover new treatments, prevention, and a cure for Alzheimer’s disease, Dr. Hodes said, the NIA also has a responsibility speed the translation of existing knowledge into practical therapies and public information. The NIA also funds research to improve the quality of life for patients with Alzheimer’s disease and their caregivers.
Dr. Hodes outlined research advances since the first genes linked to an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease were identified in the early 1990s. These have included the development of mice genetically modified to exhibit the brain pathology of Alzheimer’s disease, genome-wide studies driving an integrated systems approach to find genes and networks that distinguish a brain affected by Alzheimer’s disease, and the identification of biomarkers to help with earlier detection and track disease progression.
Most recently, revolutionary advances in imaging have allowed researchers to visualize nerve-killing Alzheimer’s amyloid proteins in the brain years before symptoms such as memory loss first appear. This innovative technology “gives us the ability to do clinical studies we could not do in the past,” Dr. Hodes said.
For example, he cited a new NIA randomized controlled clinical trial that will involve people at high risk for early-onset Alzheimer’s disease and test whether an immune therapy helps prevent amyloid accumulation or facilitates its clearance from the brain in these genetically-predisposed individuals. Using imaging technology, investigators will track amyloid lesions in the brains of study participants who receive the investigational amyloid antibody and those who don’t.
“Over time they can see whether the treatment makes a difference or not,” Dr. Hodes said. “The goal is to find a way to intervene (early) before irreparable damage is done to the brain.”
Another emerging area of study for NIA is looking at how genes may interact with the environmental and behavioral factors to influence age-related cognitive decline.
Following his formal talk, Dr. Hodes met with about 20 USF faculty members supported by the NIA to learn more about their areas of study. Their work includes such research as investigating the link between hearing and cognition; evaluating electrophysiological biomarkers for early-onset cognitive decline; testing nutritional approaches, like blueberries and spirulina, for protection against neural cell degeneration; searching for drugs or gene therapy to manipulate the chaperone proteins that regulate the fate of a hallmark Alzheimer protein known as tau; examining the role that the protein reelin plays in regulating and changing nerve cell connections in the region of the brain where new memories are formed; exploring cell-based therapies for Alzheimer’s disease; and using visual and auditory cues to help people with dementia remember better.
Dr. Hodes was impressed by breadth and strength of USF’s interdisciplinary aging research and recognized the distinctiveness of the Byrd Institute’s Center for Memory CARE, a one-stop multispecialty memory care center especially designed for Alzheimer’s patients and caregivers, Dr. Morgan said. USF President Judy Genshaft and Stephen Klasko, MD, outgoing senior vice president of USF Health and medical school dean, accompanied Dr. Hodes on his tour of the facility.
Photos by Eric Younghans, USF Health Communications